Wallace Stevens: meaning-making in a bare place

Wallace_StevensStevens’ poetry often feels like a philosophical inquiry, and one of his primary concerns appears to be the relationship of the mind to the physical world. Human perception is intimately involved in making meaning. Rather than meaning existing independently, perhaps pre-existing, floating in some Platonic realm, and ready to be grasped – meaning is a product of language, the relations between objects, and human consciousness. In short, people seem to project meaning onto, and also into, the world.


In the footnote to “The Snow Man,” Stevens writes that the poem is “an example of the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand and enjoy it.” This identification occurs in the first line: “One must have a mind of winter”; and it continues through the second stanza. The entire poem is one sentence with three semicolons, and what precedes the first two semicolons is in the affirmative, saying what one must have. However, the final portion begins in the negative: “and not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind.” Ironically, while one identifies with nature, one is also told not to think or impose human emotions, such as “misery,” upon nature. In the last stanza, the speaker describes the “listener” as “nothing himself,” who “beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Apparently, the identification also involves a complicated negation, for the winter scene has meaning through its relation with objects that have been excluded. By way of identification and negation, rather than the simple personification of nature, the “bare place” takes on meaning. In a Lacanian sense, perhaps the “bare place” has shifted from the register of the real to the symbolic.


In “Anecdote of the Jar,” which appears to parody Keat’s Grecian Urn, the jar seems to function as the primordial signifier around which everything else gains its meaning. In the third line, which is enjambed, the jar makes the “slovenly wilderness” perhaps first by defining it both as “slovenly” and “wilderness,” but then in the next line, the jar makes the wilderness “surround the hill,” as though the jar has become the focal point. By the second stanza, the jar provides order, and the wildness, now more fully defined in relation to the jar, becomes “no longer wild.” Nevertheless, the jar is not exactly the primordial signifier, simply because the “I” and “Tennessee” have meaning prior to the jar’s arrival. Even so, perhaps the placement of the jar by “I” is akin to the retroactive placement of the primordial signifier, which can be assumed or imagined only after signification has initially occurred.


In “The Idea of Order at Key West,” order seems to be imposed upon reality. Order, to some degree, is a projection of human consciousness, so people may “understand and enjoy” reality, which in itself, is a “bare place.” In the poem, two men are taking a walk by the sea when they hear a woman singing. At first, it seems that all the elements of the scene, especially the sound of the song and the sea, get combined in vague way that begins to shape the speaker’s understanding of the scene and causes him to ponder how his impression is being formed. In the first few stanzas, he seems to be working himself toward a fuller understanding. He uses negation, trying to sharpen his focus by exclusion: “The water never”; “That was not ours”; “The sea was not”; “No more was she”; “The song and water were not”; “But it was she and not the sea.” In the third stanza, however, he focuses more precisely and asks, “Whose spirit is this?” While this word “spirit” raises his inquiry out of the physical, the “spirit” is still unclear. Is it an essence, a muse, a ghost, a soul, a local deity, a mood or attitude? In the fourth stanza, in a moment of speculation, he separates the song from the sound of the seascape, and decides that in itself it would be “sound alone” and “meaningless.” He realizes that “more” is involved, and he ends the stanza by almost inadvertently divvying up the seascape into parts: water, wind, distances, shadows, horizons, atmospheres, sky, and sea. This triggers an epiphany: “It was her voice that made.” Through her voice, not only does she make the world, but more precisely she makes her world. When she leaves, the speaker expands the implications of his revelation to the town, noticing how everything is arranged, portioned, and zoned – and, thus, mastered. Perhaps, this “rage for order,” while it is necessary for meaning and understanding, also alienates us from the un-mastered reality. The poem ends by turning this rage for order inward, noting how we portion and arrange ourselves, which perhaps keeps us further disconnected.


In the background of all these poems, especially “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the poet seems to be standing ready to shape meaning, to sing and make the world. If meaning doesn’t exist outside of ourselves, if God has been dethroned, then the poet needs to stand up and declare his supreme fiction.


Michael James Rizza has an MA in creative writing from Temple University in Philadelphia and a PhD in American Literature from the University of South Carolina. He has published academic articles on Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera, Harold Frederic, and Adrienne Rich. His award winning novel Cartilage and Skin was published by Starcherone Books in November 2013. His short fiction has appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Switchback, and Curbside Splendor. He has won various awards for his writing, including a fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. His scholarly monograph entitled The Topographical Imagination of Jameson, Baudrillard, Foucault, is forthcoming with Davies Group, Publishers. He is currently at work on a funny, fast paced, literary novel called Domestic Men’s Fiction. He teaches at Kean University. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Robin and their son Wilder, who was named after a character in DeLillo’s White Noise.

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